Benjamin R. Civiletti, a former U.S. attorney general who served from 1979 to 1981 during the Carter administration, a retired partner and chairman emeritus of Venable LLP and an advocate for the abolishment of capital punishment, died Sunday evening of Parkinson’s at his Lutherville home. He was 87.
“He was a great man and a total gentleman,” former Maryland Gov. Martin J. O’Malley said. “Even when Ben Civiletti was out of the public limelight, he was still active and cared deeply about politics and his country’s journey.”
Benjamin Richard Civiletti, son of Benjamin C. Civiletti, a food store manager, and his wife, Virginia I. Civiletti, a private secretary, real estate broker and dress shop owner, was born July 17, 1935, in Peekskill, New York, and during his early years, moved quite frequently with his family.
“All those different schools and different environments made me have a little broader view as a child than I might have had I stayed in the same community and grown up with the same people,” he said in a 1980 Sunday Sun Magazine profile.
A graduate of the Irving School in Tarrytown, New York, Mr. Civiletti entered the Johns Hopkins University, where he was an accomplished athlete playing on the football, baseball and basketball teams.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1957, he attended law school at Columbia University and obtained his law degree in 1961 from the University of Maryland School of Law.
In 1958, while he was a law school student, he married the former Gaile L. Lundgren, a Villa Julie College student, whom he met at Hopkins. When they were expecting their first child, Mr. Civiletti went to law school at night while working for the Rouse Co. during the day.
After graduating from law school, Mr. Civiletti clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Calvin Chesnut and was admitted to the Maryland State Bar, and from 1962 to 1964, he was an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland.
“I remember Ben when he was an assistant U.S. attorney, and he was very bright, very fair, well-liked and actually a good basketball player as well,” said J. Joseph Curran Jr., former lieutenant governor and the state’s longest-serving attorney general. “Ben was the kind of person you had to admire and was the kind of person in life you wanted to admire.”
In 1964, he began his career as an associate in what was then the Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard. He was named partner in 1969. Two years later, he was appointed head of the firm’s litigation department, where he specialized in both criminal and civil litigation.
Ron Reno, a friend and Venable colleague, said: “As a young man he was an extremely capable lawyer. We were getting bigger and bigger, and he had the management skills to make the firm grow.”
Mr. Civiletti became a legal colleague of Griffin Bell, whom President Jimmy Carter named U.S. attorney general. Mr. Bell later recruited Mr. Civiletti to a job at the Department of Justice, where he was an assistant attorney general in charge of its criminal division and then was promoted to deputy attorney general, a position he held from 1978 to 1979.
“His legal career was extraordinary by any measure — head of litigation at Venable as a young man, one of, and perhaps the, youngest U.S. attorney generals in history, where he oversaw a luminous staff that included the current attorney general, Merrick Garland, and then returning to Venable to lead the firm to substantial growth, including the opening of its Washington, D.C., office and the addition of many new practice areas,” said George Johnston, his former Venable law partner.
Mr. Civiletti went on to be appointed attorney general of the United States in 1979 by President Carter, a position he held until 1981.
“Carter picked the best person he could find and it was Ben Civiletti because he knew how to articulate legal issues,” Mr. Curran said.
Three months into his tenure as attorney general, Iranian extremists seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, including 52 diplomats and citizens. He directed the Justice Department’s efforts to deport Iranians who entered the U.S. illegally and also traveled to the International Court of Justice at the Hague where he persuaded its judges to rule in favor of the United States in denouncing the Iranian capture of the embassy.
Also, during those years, he argued before the Supreme Court for the right of the government to denaturalize Nazi war criminals
“He let me supervise the National Organized Crime Program and the 14 organized crime strike forces. He told me to restore it after it had been diminished under the Gerald Ford administration,” said Russell T. “Tim” Baker Jr., who was a former deputy assistant attorney general before being named Maryland U.S. attorney.
After the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Mr. Civiletti returned to Venable where he resumed the practice of law.
In 2001 he was appointed by the federal court to oversee the disciplinary procedures of the Teamsters Union.
“Ben was fearless in calling out the facts as he saw them. He dispensed justice with wisdom in cases involving alleged corruption and connections to organized crime,” Mr. Johnston said. “Working with Ben was indeed a privilege — challenging but fun. He was ever ready to challenge my every assumption and assertion but gracious and generous in his judgments.”
“Ben was my boss for decades,” recalled Jeffrey P. Ayres, a longtime Venable partner. “He was compassionate and, in a crisis, sub-Arctic, not just cool, under fire.”
He added: “Ben had a devilish wry sense of humor. When he made me the law firm’s ethics officer and I asked him for a job description, Ben chortled and said, ‘Yeah, don’t screw it up.’”
In 2008, Mr. O’Malley appointed Mr. Civiletti as chairman of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which voted 13-7 — with its chairman voting with the majority — to recommend that the state General Assembly abolish capital punishment.
At the time of his appointment, Mr. Civiletti told The Baltimore Sun that he had never represented anyone charged with a capital offense. “I come in with views, but they are not fixed views,” he told the newspaper.
“What led me to appoint him to the commission was his reputation as one of our great legal minds and that he was a decent good-hearted human being. He understood the pain when a family had someone they loved brutally murdered,” Mr. O’Malley said.
In late 2008, when the commission recommended and voted for the abolition of the death penalty, Mr. Civiletti told The Sun: “There are so many faults, so many flaws within the system that we could not imagine … ways in which to cure it.”
The Morning Sun
He explained in an interview that the possibility of executing an innocent person, huge financial costs, and racial and regional biases as compelling reasons to eliminate the punishment,” The Sun reported.
Mr. O’Malley signed the bill into law in 2013.
From 1993 to 2006, Mr. Civiletti was Venable’s chairman, and he retired from the firm as chairman emeritus in 2014.
Mr. Civiletti, who lived at The Meadows in Lutherville, enjoyed reading, gardening, golfing, playing gin and spending time at a second home in Ocean Ridge, Florida. He was also an avid Orioles and Ravens fan.
Plans for a memorial Mass to be offered at the Roman Catholic Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Mount Washington are incomplete.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, the former, Gaile L. Lundgren, a homemaker; two sons, Benjamin H. Civiletti of Cross Keys and Andrew S. Civiletti of Landenberg, Pennsylvania; a daughter Lynne Civiletti Mallon of Ruxton; a sister, Pamela Civiletti of Great Falls, Montana; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.